Why Is the Vatican So Obsessed With Gluten?

If it’s really the body of Christ, what does it matter if it’s gluten free? The answer is, well, complicated.

The Catholic Church this week gave people who are gluten-free another chance to do their favorite thing—talk about being gluten-free.

That’s because news surfaced that the Roman Catholic Church does not allow gluten-free communion wafers to be used as part of the sacrament of communion. Roman Catholics are known for their belief that during the Eucharist the host (the communion wafers or bread) is transubstantiated into the body of Christ. For the more sarcastically minded, this easily could raise the snarky accusation: If it’s really the body of Christ, what does it matter if it’s gluten free? Or, as Homer Simpson put it: If that’s the blood of Jesus, that guy was really wasted. Is the Vatican admitting that transubstantiation doesn’t really work? (Spoiler alert: No)

In some ways this is not, in fact, a new development. The recent statement reinforces instructions given by the Joseph Ratzinger-headed Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2004. But we are still left with the question: Why is the Vatican so obsessed with gluten?

Bread has played a central role in Christianity from the beginning. At the Last Supper, as relayed by the Gospel writers, Jesus turns to his disciples and identifies the bread they are eating as his body and the wine as his blood. In John 6, he goes even further: He identifies his body as the bread of life and says, quite explicitly, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Even to ancient audiences this sounded a bit like cannibalism.

Among Christians there are some differences of opinion about what this means. Is the consumption of bread a symbolic act that gestures to the sacrifice of Jesus in a metaphorical way? Or does something happen to the bread and wine that mystically transforms them into the body and blood or Jesus? For Roman Catholics the answer is very much the latter, and they refer to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as the “Real Presence.”

Roman Catholics (and some other denominations like Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Orthodox Christians, who have slightly different views) believe that when the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest during the service they become different in substance but retain what are known as the accidents of the bread and wine (their taste, smell, texture, and appearance). This, by the way, is why the Church isn’t troubled by the fact that the bread and wine taste the same after consecration as they do before. How is this possible? It’s a mystery of the faith. To outsiders that might sound like a cop-out, but the distinction between substance and accidents comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It’s not something that the Catholic Church invented. Moreover, this is perfectly rational because you’re dealing with a supreme omnipotent deity who doesn’t want you to develop a taste for human blood.

(Complete side bar: In the Middle Ages, around the time that the Real Presence became a frequent topic of theological conversation, people began to report what are known as Eucharistic miracles – incidents in which the host would start bleeding, or (worse?) be transformed into congealed blood, or fly about in the air evading capture like a  snitch in quidditch. There are some stories from a medieval German book called the Dialogue on Miracles in which the host was transformed into raw flesh, an image of crucified Jesus, or an infant before reverting back into a host.)

Given the importance of the Eucharist in Catholicism, it’s easy to see why bread would be such a sticking point. After all, if it is only bread that becomes the body of Jesus, what elemental properties of bread need to be present in the communion wafer in order for transubstantiation to work and for Christ to become really present in it?…




When Things Fall Apart: Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön on Transformation Through Difficult Times

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

In every life, there comes a time when we are razed to the bone of our resilience by losses beyond our control — lacerations of the heart that feel barely bearable, that leave us bereft of solid ground. What then?

“In art,” Kafka assured his teenage walking companion, “one must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.” As in art, so in life — so suggests the American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön. In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times(public library), she draws on her own confrontation with personal crisis and on the ancient teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to offer gentle and incisive guidance to the enormity we stand to gain during those times when all seems to be lost. Half a century after Albert Camus asserted that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” Chödrön reframes those moments of acute despair as opportunities for befriending life by befriending ourselves in the deepest sense.

Photograph by Maria Popova
Photograph by Maria Popova

Writing in that Buddhist way of wrapping in simple language the difficult and beautiful truths of existence, Chödrön examines the most elemental human response to the uncharted territory that comes with loss or any other species of unforeseen change:

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.

This clarity, Chödrön argues, is a matter of becoming intimate with fear and rather than treating it as a problem to be solved, using it as a tool with which to dismantle all of our familiar structures of being, “a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.” Noting that bravery is not the absence of fear but the intimacy with fear, she writes:

When we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled. There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding on to ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.

In essence, this is the hard work of befriending ourselves, which is our only mechanism for befriending life in its completeness. Out of that, Chödrön argues, arises our deepest strength:

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.


Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

Tree by Maria Popova
Photograph by Maria Popova

Decades after Rollo May made his case for the constructiveness of despair, Chödrön considers the fundamental choice we have in facing our unsettlement — whether with aggressive aversion or with generative openness to possibility:

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.

To stay with that shakiness — to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic — this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation — harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.

Half a century after Alan Watts began introducing Eastern teachings into the West with his clarion call for presence as the antidote to anxiety, Chödrön points to the present moment — however uncertain, however difficult — as the sole seedbed of wakefulness to all of life:

This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with us.


We can be with what’s happening and not dissociate. Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives…





Go To Your High School Reunion, Dammit

Go To Your High School Reunion, Dammit
Photo by Aaron Hawkins | https://tricy.cl/2tNeGqU

Why events that celebrate the passage of time are perfect reminders of the Buddhist concept of the three marks of existence: non-self, impermanence, and suffering.

By Rachel Meyer

My 20th high school reunion is coming up next week.

How did THAT happen? More importantly: Should I go?

It’s in Nebraska, so I’d have to book a flight (with connections), rent a car, haul my kid across time zones, and find something decent to wear. Not to mention all that torturous small talk once I actually get there. As an introvert, trying to catch up on two decades of relative strangers’ lives over cocktail weenies and cheap wine is perhaps my worst nightmare.

There are a million reasons to just blow it off, not the least of which being that reunions in a post-Facebook world yield fewer surprises than they did before. Most of us are familiar with some version of one another’s lives, even if it’s a glossily curated edition.

But there’s a reason Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion became a cult hit. It articulated something most of us don’t say out loud: it can be so damn hard to go back.

Social media or not, reunions are charged with existential angst. They leave you acutely aware of the passage of time: the fact that you’re now decidedly middle-aged, sporting gray at your temples, hefting around an extra 15 pounds; and the undeniable truth that somehow, you got kind of old.

That high school promise of what could be has been replaced by the often-ambivalent reality of what is, and death feels so much closer than it did in back when Friends and The Spice Girls reigned supreme.

The movie Grosse Point Blank says it best:

Marcella: You know, when you start getting invited to your 10 year high school reunion, time is catching up.

Martin Q. Blank: Are you talking about a sense of my own mortality or a fear of death?

Marcella: Well, I never really thought about it quite like that.

Martin Q. Blank: Did you go to yours?

Marcella: Yes, I did. It was just as if everyone had swelled.

It’s complicated. So you flirt with the prospect of throwing on a pair of Spanx, buying a new handbag, touching up your roots, and praying for no awkward middle-aged acne to show up, all the while wondering what happened to your sprightly hopeful young self, and feeling insecure about your achievement or lack thereof.

It’s all too much. So then you figure: screw it. I’ll just stay home and avoid the whole awkward thing.

But you should go. Because life is short. We’re lucky to be around at 38. And who knows if we’ll make it to our 30th high school reunion?  

Lewis Richmond, a Buddhist teacher and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser, uses Zen philosophy to express our inherent connection in a different way.

In a 2010 conversation with Tricycle’s feature editor Andrew Cooper, Richmond said:

Sometimes when I’m asked to describe the Buddhist teachings, I say this: Everything is connected; nothing lasts; you are not alone. This is really just a restatement of the traditional three marks of existence: non-self, impermanence, and suffering. I don’t think I would have expressed the truth of suffering as “you are not alone” before my illnesses, but now I find that talking about it that way gets at something important. The fact that we all suffer means we are all in the same boat, and that’s what allows us to feel compassion.

When sickness and death touch your life—as they inevitably will—they’re an electrical shock waking you up to the fact that you don’t get to keep this body forever. You don’t have time to get an MBA or train for that Ironman before you give yourself permission to be authentic and at ease in your body and your relationships. You begin to realize that tomorrow might be too late.

And those people with whom you shared your teenage years? They’re precious in a way no one else might be…